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“Remember You Are Catholic”

By November 16, 2004 No Comments

It is no secret that the Reformed tradition can take shape in forms that are deeply sectarian, provincial, and polemical. But if we were to diagnose the cause of such instantiations of Reformed faith, I think we would find one common cause: memory loss.

In particular, such sectarian versions of Reformed identity tend to see themselves as relatively new inventions, or new recoveries of the “true” faith. The most polemical and schismatic permutations of Reformed faith and practice thus tend to exhibit a paradoxical blend of primitivism and temporal hubris: on the one hand, they tend to have an air of just-having-dropped-from-the-sky; Letters Cover but on the other hand, they claim to give us the only authentic version of “Pauline” Christianity. Although trumpeting notions of “recovering” the truth, these polemical elements of the Reformed tradition seem to be characterized by a kind of deep forgetting. We might suggest that these versions of the Reformed tradition are more interested in being “holy” and “apostolic” than “catholic”–as if they could be separated.

It is interesting to note that much earlier, in the early fifth century, St. Augustine grappled with another version of sectarianism– Donatism–that also tended to suffer from memory loss. And thus, when pastorally addressing the challenge for his parishioners, Augustine advocated remembering. In particular, he charged them: “Remember, you are catholic . . .” (Sermon 52). I would contend that the Reformed tradition could heed the same admonition today. Indeed, it was with Augustine’s admonition in mind that I came to George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic.

That an admonition to be catholic would give Reformed Christian pause is evidence of precisely why such an exhortation is so important. (I’ve been in Reformed congregations that, if they recite the creed, project it on a screen and expect us to confess “the holy universal church,” just to keep things straight.) In an era when Reformed churches are being variously co-opted by a kind of generic evangelical pragmatism, American civic theology, or mainstream liberalism, Weigel’s Letters should be received as a reminder of the Augustinian challenge to remember our catholicity. Such a remembering of who we are–disciples of Jesus who are members of one, holy, catholic, apostolic church–will be a powerful antidote to both the schismatic and polemical elements of the Reformed tradition, but also should revitalize a sense of antithesis, or what Weigel’s describes as “the catholic difference” (p. 9).

What will be most difficult is for Reformed Christians to imagine themselves as recipients of these letters. Because of various shifts in identity and historical factors, we might not immediately think of ourselves as the audience for a book addressed to “catholics” (let alone young ones!); but insofar as our credo includes the confession of one holy catholic church, what Weigel articulates is the core of Christian faith and practice. Although we often hear the term “catholic” as a way of marking off a body of Christians from other Christians, when Weigel speaks of “the catholic faith,” he means that faith that distinguishes the people of God from the secular and pagan faiths of the contemporary world. If there is a polemics here, it is not directed against other Christians (Weigel is not out to demonize Protestants) but against the Christian faith’s most seductive foes: secularism and liberalism. When Weigel articulates “the catholic difference,” he is not marking off Roman Catholics from Presbyterians, but rather describing that which marks off the people of God as a peculiar people and a holy nation. Indeed, Weigel even wants to reinvigorate the notion of the ghetto, recalling the Catholic ghetto of his Baltimore youth: “the most ghettoized people of all,” he concludes, “are those who don’t know they grew up in a particular time and place and culture, and who think they can get to universal truths outside of particular realities and communities” (p. 9). In the same way that some of my Dutch friends are drawn to the accounts of Hasidic communities in Potok, Weigel gives us a sense in which a community constituted by “the catholic difference” functions as an empowering ghetto, though with its own set of struggles and challenges. “The real question,” he offers, “is not whether you grow up in a ghetto, but whether the ideas and customs and rhythms of your particular ghetto prepare you to engage other ideas and customs and life experiences without losing touch with your roots” (p. 9).

Of course, the same peculiar people that are marked by “the catholic difference” is also a trans-national and enduring community. So Weigel’s strategy for introducing his young interlocutor to the catholic faith is via a world tour of catholic places inhabited by exemplars of catholic faith. Beginning with the Baltimore ghetto of his youth, Weigel takes us on “an epistolary tour” of places such as St. Peter’s Rome, Chesterton’s pub in London, St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, the Oratory that was home to Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, and the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Krakow, one of several Polish sites in the book. (Curiously absent from the tour are any sites outside of the northern hemisphere; indeed, the entire continents of South America and Africa are silent in this account.) The result is a rich sketch of the core themes and affirmations that constitute “the catholic difference” that is, “at bottom, a way of seeing the world” (p. 9).

If you’ll permit a Kuyperian indulgence, I take Weigel to be providing a lucid account of the Christian world-and-life view. And indeed, the reason why I think this book is such a wonderful reminder of our catholicity– why I receive it as an Augustinian injunction to remember I am catholic–is because Weigel helps to locate key themes we traditionally regard as part of the Reformed worldview as ultimately catholic Christianity. “While Catholicism is a body of beliefs and a way of life,” he remarks, “Catholicism is also an optic, a way of seeing things, a distinctive perception of reality” (p. 10, emphasis original). Although Weigel presents an account that is at once accessibly simple and sufficiently complex, I would highlight just three core features of this catholic optic.

First, the catholic optic is animated by a sacramental imagination. This is unfolded for us in G. K. Chesterton’s old haunt, The Cheshire Cheese pub in London, where we find the rotund apologist enjoying the very material blessings of food and ale. As Weigel puts it, Chesterton’s delight in the material world illustrates “the bedrock Catholic conviction that stuff counts.” Indeed, Weigel makes the radically orthodox claim that only a catholic account of the world can really affirm materiality: “Catholicism takes the world, and the things of the world, far more seriously than those who like to think of themselves as worldly” (p. 86). Both fundamentalists and so-called materialists, he argues, subscribe to a gnostic imagination;

  . . . the catholic faith reminds us that it is a tradition; it is a community of memory.  only those who affirm the paradox of the Incarnation can see the world with a sacramental imagination (pp. 87, 94). We find the same affirmation of stuff in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (pp. 98-100) and in the almost sacramental (or theurgical) ladder of love in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (pp. 101-114). And it is ultimately this affirmation of creational stuff that makes us take history seriously, as illustrated in sites of pilgrimage and veneration. In commenting on the scavi (excavations) beneath St. Peter’s, Weigel suggests that “[t]he scavi and the obelisk–Peter’s remains and the last thing Peter may have seen in this life–confront us with the historical tangibility, the she
er grittiness, of Catholicism” (p. 26). The foundations of the Catholic faith are something we can touch (p. 27).

So though catholicism might seem to be an other-worldly ideology, Weigel contends that, paradoxically, it is only catholics who can really affirm the world. The second core theme offers a similar flip of first impressions: despite assumptions that Catholicism is “Victorian” in its supposed repression of sexuality, in fact at the root of Catholicism is a rich, affirmative theology of the body. Building on the founding affirmation of the Incarnation, Weigel provides a kind of “exegesis” of the Sistine Chapel to help us reach John Paul II’s conclusion: that the Sistine Chapel is “the sanctuary of the theology of the human body” (p. 130). The sacramental imagination, which affirms the goodness of creation, animates an iconic imagination that affirms the presence of the invisible in the visible–which, in a way, “lifts up” the messiness of bodies to be more than biological machines.

“Human bodies,” Weigel summarizes, “are icons” (p. 130). And if this is pictured in the Sistine Chapel (Letter 8), and undergirds the beauty of Chartres as a kind of “antechamber” of heaven (Letter 12), it is articulated most forcefully by John Paul II. “In a move that takes the argument about the sexual revolution as far beyond prudishness as you can imagine, John Paul has proposed that sexual love within the bond of faithful and fruitful marriage is nothing less than an icon of the interior life of God himself” (p. 131). So, contrary to the assumptions of the New York Times reporter who thought the Pope should have been embarrassed by all of the nudes in the Sistine Chapel (p. 130), John Paul II steadily sketched a theology of the body in 129 general audience addresses between 1979 and 1984. Weigel does an excellent job of showing how counter-cultural this affirmation of embodiment and sexuality is in our contemporary context.

Finally, Weigel’s sketch of the catholic faith reminds us that it is a tradition; it is a community of memory that resists both romanticism and the kind of temporal hubris that dismisses everything prior to 1968. “Christian thinking,” Weigel suggests, “should adopt an ecumenism of time, employing wisdom and insight from any historical era” (p. 80, emphasis added). In other words, Catholicism is what Chesterton called “a democracy of the dead” because it affirms tradition–which “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors” (p. 92). It is precisely this ecumenism of time that makes catholic Christianity critical of what Newman described as “liberalism” in religion (Letter 5). In an era when, it seems to me, what we are getting in the name of Kuyper and “common grace” might be more akin to “liberalism,” Newman’s voice and critique could be an ally in recovering the more “antithetical” side of the Reformed tradition–what Weigel has been calling “the catholic difference,” or “countercultural Catholicism.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that as a Reformed catholic Christian I might not have done things a little differently than Weigel. It seems to me that St. Peter gets more face time than Jesus, and the Pauline (and Augustinian) tradition seems underplayed. (Though, on the other hand, I found his description of Mary as the first and exemplary disciple helpful and formative.) In addition, one must concede that what we get from Weigel is a fairly rosy account of Catholicism, largely avoiding recent scandals and longstanding superstitions associated with its reception in Latin and South America, not to mention disturbing legacies of holy imperial violence. Also, given what we’ve received from Weigel in First Things, one shouldn’t be surprised to find here (though muted, I think) a subtle Catholic baptism of free markets and globalized democracy.

But the alluring strength of these epistolary sketches is Weigel’s irenic account of a catholic consensus summarized in the Vincentian canon: what all Christians have at all times and everywhere believed. On that score, it seems to me that Reformed Christians would do well to receive Weigel’s Letters as reminders that we, too, are catholic.

James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College. His most recent book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology, was released by from Baker Academic this fall.